Why can’t we still speak like that? – The Old English Poem ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’

Posted: May 3, 2014 in Poetry
Tags: , , , , , ,

‘Her Aethelstan cyning laedde fyrde to Brunanbyrig’ – 937 Anglo Saxon Chronicle ‘E’

Most historians of England maintain that the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 was a decisive event in the creation of England. The battle pitted Æthelstan, the English king of Wessex and Mercia, supported by some Norse mercenaries, against a temporary coalition of Scandinavians, Cumbrians (the Strathclyde British) and Scots. The victory that the English achieved ‘led to‘ the  England we know today, at least geographically, and hence Æthelstan is often called the first ‘King of England’.

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

Brunburgh Bromborough on the Wirral

I don’t want to go into the context of the battle, its course or its location here. Suffice it to say that most of the evidence, place names, topography and the political and military context, points to it being fought near to Bromborough on the Wirral peninsula, in what is now Cheshire.

Embedded within the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 937 is an Old English poem usually known not surprisingly as ‘The Battle of Brunanburh’. I reproduce this wonderful poem below, followed by two modern translations: one by Alfred Lord Tennyson (he of ‘into the valley of death… ‘), plus another rather free (but good) rendition of more recent date.

But first like all poems it should be heard. Click here (or see below) to hear the original Old English poem, with Alfred Lord Tennyson’s words as subtitles. Please note this is only part of the poem. Please note too that the commentary of the inimitable Brian Blessed hosts an horrendous hoard of heinous historical howlers.

Or try this version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfaEGU45lKA

Even though it helps that I understand German as well as English, if any native English speaker listens to this poem a few times I think they will find much of it becomes clear.

Much as I love our modern English language – its wonderful variety, its mixture of Germanic roots, Norse words, French imports and much more – when I listen to this poem I can’t help wishing we English still spoke like this. No highfalutin French frippery, no repressive legal mumbo jumbo, just earthy, no-nonsense speech and poetry.

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

Battle of Brunanburh by Skworus

If the Battle of Brunanburh in some way helped to ‘make England’, it was unmade little more than a hundred years later at another battle: Hastings in 1066. Some rather benighted historians used to portray the Norman conquest of England as an ultimately positive event for England and even the rest of Britain once the ‘initial’ horrors were over. It was of course nothing of the sort. The Norman French destroyed much of what was England, its language, its culture, and replaced it with a brutal centuries-long feudalism under which the people of England became serfs in the service of French masters. It’s a heritage we still live with today.

If King Harold Godwinson hadn’t rather rashly immediately engaged the Norman duke William the Bastard when tired and depleted after seeing off the Norse of Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, or if the English had won at Hastings (it was a close-run thing), then just maybe we’d still talk like the poem.

I am of Welsh, English and Norse ancestry, but one can but dream. It’s enough to make me want to go and live in Scandinavia.


The Battle of Brunanburh – in Old English/Anglo-Saxon

Her Aethelstan cyning, eorla dryhten,

beorna beag-giefa, and his brothor eac,

Eadmund aetheling, ealdor-langetir

geslogon aet saecce sweorda ecgum

ymbe Brunanburh. Bord-weall clufon,

heowon heathu-linde hamora lafum

eaforan Eadweardes, swa him ge-aethele waes

fram cneo-magum thaet hie aet campe oft

with lathra gehwone land ealgodon,

hord and hamas. Hettend crungon,

Scotta leode and scip-flotan,

faege feollon. Feld dennode

secga swate siththan sunne upp

on morgen-tid, maere tungol,

glad ofer grundas, Godes candel beorht,

eces Dryhtnes, oth seo aethele gesceaft

sag to setle. Thaer laeg secg manig

garum agieted, guma Northerna

ofer scield scoten, swelce Scyttisc eac,

werig, wiges saed.


West-Seaxe forth

andlange daeg eorod-cystum

on last legdon lathum theodum,

heowon here-flieman hindan thearle

mecum mylen-scearpum. Mierce ne wierndon

heardes hand-plegan haeletha nanum

thara-the mid Anlafe ofer ear-gebland

on lides bosme land gesohton,

faege to gefeohte. Fife lagon

on tham camp-stede cyningas geonge,

sweordum answefede, swelce seofone eac

eorlas Anlafes, unrim herges,

flotena and Scotta. Thaere gefliemed wearth

North-manna brego, niede gebaeded,

to lides stefne lytle weorode;

cread cnear on flot, cyning ut gewat

on fealone flod, feorh generede.

Swelce thaere eac se froda mid fleame com

on his cyththe north, Constantinus,

har hilde-rinc. Hreman ne thorfte

meca gemanan; he waes his maga sceard,

freonda gefielled on folc-stede,

beslaegen aet saecce, and his sunu forlet

on wael-stowe wundum forgrunden,

geongne aet guthe. Gielpan ne thorfte

beorn blanden-feax bill-gesliehtes,

eald inwitta, ne Anlaf thy ma;

mid hira here-lafum hliehhan ne thorfton

thaet hie beadu-weorca beteran wurdon

on camp-stede cumbol-gehnastes,

gar-mittunge, gumena gemotes,

waepen-gewrixles, thaes hie on wael-felda

with Eadweardes eaforan plegodon.


Gewiton him tha North-menn naegled-cnearrum,

dreorig darotha laf, on Dinges mere

ofer deop waeter Dyflin secan,

eft Ira lang aewisc-mode.

Swelce tha gebrothor begen aetsamne,

cyning and aetheling, cyththe sohton,

West Seaxna lang, wiges hremge.

Leton him behindan hraew bryttian

sealwig-padan, thone sweartan hraefn

hyrned-nebban, and thone hasu-padan,

earn aeftan hwit, aeses brucan,–

graedigne guth-hafoc, and thaet graege deor,

wulf on wealda.


Ne wearth wael mare

on thys ig-lande aefre gieta

folces gefielled beforan thissum

sweordes ecgum, thaes-the us secgath bec,

eald uthwitan, siththan eastan hider

Engle and Seaxe upp becomon,

ofer brad brimu Britene sohton,

wlance wig-smithas, Wealas ofercomon,

eorlas ar-hwaete eard begeaton.


Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh

Lord among Earls,
Bracelet-bestower and
Baron of Barons,
He with his brother,
Edmund Atheling,
Gaining a lifelong
Glory in battle,
Slew with the sword-edge
There by Brunanburh,
Brake the shield-wall,
Hew’d the lindenwood,
Hack’d the battleshield,
Sons of Edward with hammer’d brands.

Theirs was a greatness
Got from their Grandsires—
Theirs that so often in
Strife with their enemies
Struck for their hoards and their hearths and their homes.

Bow’d the spoiler,
Bent the Scotsman,
Fell the shipcrews
Doom’d to the death.
All the field with blood of the fighters
Flow’d, from when first the great
Sun-star of morningtide,
Lamp of the Lord God
Lord everlasting,
Glode over earth till the glorious creature
Sank to his setting.

There lay many a man
Marr’d by the javelin,
Men of the Northland
Shot over shield.
There was the Scotsman
Weary of war.

We the West-Saxons,
Long as the daylight
Lasted, in companies
Troubled the track of the host that we hated,
Grimly with swords that were sharp from the grindstone,
Fiercely we hack’d at the flyers before us.

Mighty the Mercian,
Hard was his hand-play,
Sparing not any of
Those that with Anlaf,
Warriors over the
Weltering waters
Borne in the bark’s-bosom,
Drew to this island:
Doom’d to the death.

Five young kings put asleep by the sword-stroke,
Seven strong Earls of the army of Anlaf
Fell on the war-field, numberless numbers,
Shipmen and Scotsmen.

Then the Norse leader.
Dire was his need of it,
Few were his following,
Fled to his warship
Fleeted his vessel to sea with the king in it.
Saving his life on the fallow flood.

Also the crafty one,
Crept to his North again,
Hoar-headed hero!

Slender warrant had
He to be proud of
The welcome of war-knives—
He that was reft of his
Folk and his friends that had
Fallen in conflict,
Leaving his son too
Lost in the carnage,
Mangled to morsels,
A youngster in war!

Slender reason had
He to be glad of
The clash of the war-glaive—
Traitor and trickster
And spurner of treaties—
He nor had Anlaf
With armies so broken
A reason for bragging
That they had the better
In perils of battle
On places of slaughter—
The struggle of standards,
The rush of the javelins,
The crash of the charges,
The wielding of weapons—
The play that they play’d with
The children of Edward.

Then with their nail’d prows
Parted the Norsemen, a
Blood-redden’d relic of
Javelins over
The jarring breaker, the deep-sea billow,
Shaping their way toward Dyflen again,
Shamed in their souls.

Also the brethren,
King and Atheling,
Each in his glory,
Went to his own in his own West-Saxonland,
Glad of the war.

Many a carcase they left to be carrion,
Many a livid one, many a sallow-skin—
Left for the white-tail’d eagle to tear it, and
Left for the horny-nibb’d raven to rend it, and
Gave to the garbaging war-hawk to gorge it, and
That gray beast, the wolf of the weald.

Never had huger
Slaughter of heroes
Slain by the sword-edge—
Such as old writers
Have writ of in histories—
Hapt in this isle, since
Up from the East hither
Saxon and Angle from
Over the broad billow
Broke into Britain with
Haughty war-workers who
Harried the Welshman, when
Earls that were lured by the
Hunger of glory gat
Hold of the land.


The Battle of Brunanburh – translated by John Osbourne

Then Aethelstan, king, Thane of eorls,

ring-bestower to men, and his brother also,

the atheling Edmund, lifelong honour

struck in battle with sword’s edge

at Brunanburh. Broke the shieldwall,

split shields with swords.

Edward’s sons, the issue of princes

from kingly kin, oft on campaign

their fatherland from foes defended,

hoard and home. Crushed the hated ones,

Scots-folk and ship-men

fated fell. The field flowed with blood,

I have heard said, from sun-rise

in morningtime, as mighty star

glided up overground, God’s bright candle,

– the eternal Lord’s – till that noble work

sank to its setting. There lay scores of men

destroyed by darts, Danish warrior

shot over shield. So Scots also

wearied of war. West-Saxons went forth

from morn till night the mounted warriors

pursued enemy people,

the fleeing forces were felled from behind

with swords new-sharpened. The Mercians spurned not

hard hand-play with heroes

that accompanied Anlaf over sea’s surge,

in ship’s shelter sought land,

came fated to fight. Five lay dead

on the killing field, young kings

put to sleep with the sword; so also seven

of Anlaf’s eorls, and unnumbered slain

among sea-men and Scots. So was routed

the Northmen’s lord, by need forced

to take ship with few troops.

compelled to sea , the king set out

on fallow flood, saved his life.

So also the wise one fled away

to his northern country, Constantine,

hoary battle-man; he need not boast

of that meeting of swords. He was severed from kin,

forfeiting friends on that field,

slain at war, and his son left

on the death-ground, destroyed by his wounds,

young warrior. He need not brag,

the white-haired warrior, about sword-wielding,

the artful one, nor Anlaf either;

With their army smashed they need not sneer

that their battle-work was better

on the battlefield where banners crashed

and spears clashed in that meeting of men,

that weapon-wrestle, when on the death-field

they played with Edward’s offspring.

The Northmen went off in nail-bound ships,

sad survivors of spears, on Ding’s mere,

over deep water seeking Dublin,

Ireland again, ashamed in their hearts.

So both brothers together,

king and atheling, their country sought,

the land of Wessex, in war exulting.

They left behind them sharing the lifeless

the dusk-dressed one, the dark raven,

with hard beak of horn, and the hoar-coated one,

white-tailed eagle, enjoying the carrion,

greedy war-hawk, and that grey beast,

the wolf of the wood. Nor was more slaughter

on this isle ever yet,

so many folk felled, before this

sword battle, as say the books,

the old wise men, since from the east

Angle and Saxon arrived together

over broad briny seeking Britain,

proud warriors who worsted the Welsh,

eager for glory, and gained a land.

  1. Ironically, it is Æthelstan who, in the year preceding Brunanburh sealed England’s fate. In 936. he bade his god-brother Duke Alan II (“the Fox”) of Brittany godspeed on a mission to recover Brittany from the Vikings.
    Alan was so successful that the surviving Loire Vikings ceased to be a threat and the power of the Seine Vikings (Normans) collapsed.
    On seeing Alan’s initial successes and how these were already nicely distracting the Viking hordes, King Louis IV of France also returned from exile in Æthelstan’s court, seized Normandy, and captured the infant heir to the Norman leadership, Richard I, Count of Rouen.
    In time, Richard I allied with neighbouring counts and recovered Normandy, as the Carolingian Empire collapsed and France was wracked with internal conflict.
    The Normans learnt from their experience with the Bretons that it was safer to ally with them than to occupy their land. The Breton Dukes in their own wisdom chose marital alliances with the Dukes of Normandy and the Counts of Maine, Anjou and Blois. Once Flanders entered the mix, the stage was set for conquest, either of France or of England.
    If Æthelstan had kept Alan and Louis in England instead of facilitating their return to their homelands, Brittany would have ceased to be an entity, France would have remained weak, and William the Conqueror would never have been born. England would have faced continued Viking raids, and direct threats from Denmark, but nothing as transformational as the Norman Conquest. Brunanburh and the reign of King Canute both proved that England could have weathered anything less.
    As to why we don’t still speak like the narrators of Beowulf, the Battle of Maldon, and the Battle of Brunanburh, one might as well ask why we don’t speak like William Shakespeare? Same language, Modern English, yes? But the cadences, vocabulary and styles of Shakespeare’s plays and poems are dramatically 🙂 different from our everyday 21st century speech. For that matter, no-one is Shakespeare’s time spoke like his scripts, possibly excepting Queen Elizabeth I, who was probably reading a script herself when she spoke of having the body of a woman, but the heart of a king of England. And that, I suspect, is the answer.

  2. justbod says:

    Great article – Thank you!

  3. tremendous poem in the original, and pretty good in Tennyson’s translation. John Osborne’s version lacks impact.

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